Representing Sex Workers in the Canadian Newspaper

Albert (1989) , as referenced by Van Brunschot, Sydie & Krull (2000), highlights the distortion that can occur when newspapers must cover the same issue over a long period of time. In an effort to give an “old” story new life, journalists find new approaches to the same material, at times sensationalizing the events. For example, in Albert’s work on AIDS media coverage, he a notes a new angle on the pandemic: the association of AIDS with prostitution, “serving to increase the perceived threat of both phenomena” (as cited by Van Brunschot, et al., p.50).

Furthermore, the mainstream media often supports existing power structures. One consequence of this is the media’s reinforcement of patriarchal values, through its perpetuation of gender stereotypes, its silencing of women’s issues, and many other traditions that normalize gender inequality (Hallgrimsdottir, Phillips, & Benoit, 2006). This does not only impact media representations of women, but representations of other historically marginalized groups as well.

All of these media pitfalls are at play when it comes to newspaper coverage of the sex work community. In the case of a complex and highly divisive issue like prostitution, newsmakers can shape how citizens understand, or misunderstand, the issues at play. With the ability to influence anyone from a “john” to a policymaker, news stories can have a direct impact on the lives of sex workers (Hallgrimsdottir, Phillips, Benoit & Walby, 2008).

Hallgrimsdottir, Phillips, Benoit & Walby (2008) point out that for many, the news may be the only place where they “encounter” sex workers . “This means that the fictive characters, stereotypes, and morality fables used by the newspaper media in their narratives of the sex industry are relatively unassailable, especially to the extent that audiences lack experiential knowledge by which to challenge them” (Hallgrimsdottir et al, 2008, p.121).

What follows is an overview of a few works that examine how Canadian newspapers are representing sex work.

Van Brunschot, Sydie & Krull (2000) examined news coverage of prostitution in five major Canadian newspapers from 1981 to 1995. Four prominent themes emerged : nuisance, child abuse (child prostitution), violence and non-Western prostitution. Two other themes that were evident in regional coverage were drugs/organized crimes and disease, again associating sex workers with social ills. Oftentimes, contextual information relevant to these themes was not included, such as life histories or conditions that may have led to child prostitution or drug use.

The theme prevalent in the most recent articles analyzed was non-Western prostitution. However, Brunschot et al found that stories within this theme also incorporated violence, organized crime, and child abuse in particular.

While the adult Western sex worker is often deemed responsible for her actions, the non-Western prostitute is depicted as a victim with little agency. The stories reported often recount how the non-Western sex worker is coerced into prosititution by her family. Her culture of origin is seen as to blame. Brunschot et al point out the underlying racism at play in such typifications.

Brunschot et al found that indoor sex work was rarely mentioned in the articles analyzed, implying that the media only deems prostitution a concern when it is visible.

Jiwani and Young (2006) focus their analysis on newspaper coverage of the missing and murdered women in Vacouver’s Downtown Eastside, looking at articles from The Vancouver Sun between 2001 and 2006.

Aboriginal people have often been misrepresented in the media,and this is particularly true in the case of Aboriginal women. Depicted as having no agency, or in many cases not even given a voice, the media perpetuates the message that Aboriginal women who are sex workers are “deserving of violence” (Jiwani & Young, 2006, p.899). “[R]ep- resentations of Aboriginal women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside oscillate between invisibility and hypervisibility: invisible as victims of violence and hypervisible as deviant bodies” (Jiwani& Young, 2006, p.899).Canada’s record of colonialism and neo-colonialism has shaped the lives of these women, yet is rarely mentioned in the news coverage.

The media often implies that women are to blame for the violence they face, and sex workers are treated as even more culpable. The systemic issues that allow for this widespread violence is ingored, with each instance depicted as a rare occurance. In the case of the missing and murdered women, Robert Pickton’s portrayal as an “ultimate predator” in fact undermines the reality that others look to commit violence in the Downtown Eastside and areas like it.“The fact that the predators are men who sexually exploit and assault girls and women that society devalues and, further, that such predators feel they can commit violence with impunity in specific areas is never interrogated” (Jiwani & Young, 2006, p.908). Furthermore, with the focus on sensationalizing the horrific actions of Pickton, the coverage loses sight of the plight of the victims.

Jiwani & Young found that newspapers stressed the missing women’s roles as mothers, daughters, sisters, using normative female roles to make them more sympathetic . “Such attempts, we suggest, are driven by the fault lines of previous regimes of difference—ways through which society demarcates those who deserve our attention, and thus our sympathy and intervention, and those who remain marginalized, outside the pale of the civilized, normative order” (2006, p.912).

Hallgrimsdottir, Phillips, Benoit & Walby (2008) analyzed newspaper articles published in Victoria over two time periods, 1870-1910 and 1980-2004. In the most recent time period, which is more relevant four our purposes, the authors find themes emerging that are similar to Brunschot et al, such as sex workers being “vectors of contagion, “having been entrapped or enslaved”, and associated with “violence and disease” (p.129).

Two other themes were noted: coverage dealing with whether sex workers should be held responsible for their actions, “ a discussion that veers between the poles of criminality and victimization” (Hallgrimsdottir et al, 2008, p. 129), and the inability of social institutions to stop sexual exploitation. Sex workers are either portrayed as calculating in their ability to elude the law, or as victims who cannot be helped, beoming “triply laden with stigma: contagious and dangerous but also lacking the capacity to act with moral will” (p.133).

Like Van Brunschot et al, Hallgrimsdottir et al highlight that the visibility of sex workers is represented as a major concern in newspapers. However, the authors notice that this visibility is commonly described as being contained within certain areas, allowing readers to feel removed from the problem. In the case of the missing women from Vancouver’s East Side, the “spatial context” (p.131) served to make readers feel at a safe distance “economically and socioculturally”(p.131).

Furthermore, the authors found that there has been a shift over time from focusing on the risk sex workers pose to the public, to sex workers’ “risky” behavior. This conveys the message that sex workers are to blame for the dangers they face, “offering them up as the appropriate target for legal and moral intervention” (p.133).

Hallgrimsdottir find virtually no stories about male sex workers, as well as little attention paid to male clients. “Sex industry involvement is consistently conflated across time with problematic female sexuality” (p.132).

Kaywan, Mackenzie, Messiha & Soeker (2010) investigate the news coverage of the Ontario Court ruling in 2010 where three laws related to prostitution were struck down. The authors specifically look for discussions of poverty, race and gender inequality, three factors which they contend play key roles in the perpetuation of prostitution, and therefore should be discussed in the news coverage for the public to have a better understanding of sex work.

Poverty was not mentioned in the majority of articles, however was more frequently discussed in articles that were anti-legalization. There was discussion of poverty in the majority of these stories that focused on street prostitution.

The majority of articles did not discuss gender inequality, however again the frequency of this discussion increased in articles that were against legalization.

The authors also found that there was virtually no discussion of race in any of the articles they looked at. “ With Aboriginal women making up 90% of the street prostitution, this is a huge omission by the media” (Kaywan et al., 2010, n.p.)

Unlike the previous studies outlined in the post, Kaywan et al did find that sex workers were often used as sources in this coverage. The majority of them were in favor of legalization. Yet, the sex workers quoted were mainly those that worked indoors, or high end escorts. Therefore, this may not have been representative.

Furthermore, the most frequent sources used were those “that have status in the community such as government, legal profession, academic experts, and academic experts”(Kaywan et al., 2010, n.p.). NGO’s, which the authors point out usually work directly with sex workers, were rarely sourced.Overall, the majority of sources used were in favor of legalization of prositution. Yet, the majority of academic experts were not in favor of legalization.

What becomes clear from all these analyses is that the media relies heavily on stereotypes of sex workers that journalists have continued to use over time. These stereotypes are far from representative of the diverse community of sex workers, nor of the complexity of their lives. While some of these stereotypes may have some truth to them in certain cases, the media makes virtually no effort to examine the larger systemic issues that have shaped these realities. The media rarely discusses misogny, racism, and other hegemonic forces have an acute impact on the lives and safety of sex workers. These omissions imply that certain social ills are caused by and unique to the sex worker community, single handedly demonizing them and deflecting attention away from the fact that these problems are the result of larger social factors at work.

“Proximate causes of the stigmatization of sex work change over time, but no matter what these proximate causes are, sex work remains controversial and stigmatized. This suggests that there are more fundamental factors at work: sex work stigmas are not about the “rights and wrongs” of prostitution but instead are about how rules around sexuality and sexual virtue are used to shore up orders of social, ethnoracial, and gender inequality” (Hallgrimsdottir et al, 2008, p.134).